The best books on the French Revolution

Christine Haynes Author Of Our Friends the Enemies: The Occupation of France After Napoleon
By Christine Haynes

The Books I Picked & Why

Ninety-Three

By Victor Hugo

Ninety-Three

Why this book?

Set at the height of the French Revolution, in the midst of the Terror, this novel by the Romantic writer Victor Hugo depicts the contest between revolutionary “Blues” and counter-revolutionary “Whites” in Brittany.  Emphasizing the ideological conviction of both sides, the novel provides a vivid introduction to the civil war engendered by the Revolution of 1789, between radical Jacobins, on the one hand, and traditionalist nobles, priests, and peasants, especially in the Vendée region of western France, on the other. While it is perhaps a bit melodramatic for modern tastes, this lesser-known novel by one of France’s most celebrated authors nonetheless still deserves to be read for the way in which it encapsulates the complexities of human motivation and experience in the midst of a revolution.


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The Literary Underground of the Old Regime

By Robert Darnton

The Literary Underground of the Old Regime

Why this book?

It is widely accepted that the French Revolution would not have occurred without the preceding Enlightenment. But what exactly was the Enlightenment? In this now classic study, Robert Darnton broadened the perspective on this question, to examine the writers, publishers, booksellers, peddlers, and smugglers responsible for the circulation of “enlightened” ideas.  Often operating illegally underground or even abroad in “Grub Street,” these producers and distributors of Enlightenment played a key role in subverting the Old Regime centered on monarchy, Church, and aristocracy, which would come crashing down in 1789.


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A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

By Jeremy D. Popkin

A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution

Why this book?

If you read only one book on the French Revolution, this new comprehensive synthesis should be the one. Based on a half-century of study of the subject, it evocatively reconstructs the main stakes and debates of this first modern “revolution,” in the sense of a break with the past, from its origins in the 1770s and 80s to its overthrow by Napoleon Bonaparte after 1799. Attentive to the experiences of ordinary people in the Revolution, including women and blacks, it is one of the few works (so far) to treat the related unrest in the Caribbean, especially Haiti, not as tangential but as integral to the revolution in France. Throughout, this new history reminds us of the seminal importance of the French Revolution for our own struggles over democracy today.


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Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution

By Ian Coller

Muslims and Citizens: Islam, Politics, and the French Revolution

Why this book?

Similarly contributing to a broadening of perspective on the French Revolution, Ian Coller’s new book examines the way in which Muslims figured into the history of this world-historical event.  Making creative use of scattered and fragmentary sources on Muslims in eighteenth-century France and its empire, he shows how they were central to discussions of the “universalism” of the rights guaranteed by the revolutionary government. While this government was initially supported by much of the Muslim world, it ultimately undermined Muslim support—and the republic itself—by attempting to impose its vision of universal “liberty” in the invasion of Egypt in 1798, which brought the young general Napoleon Bonaparte to power.


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Life in Revolutionary France

By Mette Herder, Jennifer Heuer

Life in Revolutionary France

Why this book?

This new collection of essays by an international team of cutting-edge scholars allows readers to see how the French Revolution affected ordinary men and women, in Paris, the French provinces, and the French empire overseas.  Treating a broad range of topics—from female activism to property, justice, medicine, food, material culture, childhood, religion, and war—these essays collectively paint a vivid picture of everyday life during this tumultuous period.  Each essay is accompanied by a primary document from the time, which enables readers to see for themselves the kinds of sources on which historians rely in their work.  Inspired by innovative historiographical approaches to spaces, emotions, and artifacts, Life in Revolutionary France paves the way for new research into the everyday experience of revolution.


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